Only in the 70s: Caligula (1979) (NSFW)

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AS WE ROUND off this hideous month of humid August, we can find a little time to spotlight a film that festers with glorious, carefree self-indulgence. It’s Bacchanalia at SCM for – yes, really – Caligula.

[Explicit images to follow]

Caligula is “sickening, shameful trash”. Caligula is “remarkably repulsive”. Caligula is the summative total of 1970s excess: a brazen, pornographic melange of anarchic debauchery. Funded by Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione and helmed by Salon Kitty director Tinto Brass, Caligula is a 150 minute epic movie starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud, detailing the rise and fall of the notoriously monstrous Roman Emperor Caligula between the years 37-41 AD. It’s also an unheralded, overlooked masterpiece.

No, really. Caligula is an endlessly fascinating trainwreck on par with Zardoz for sheer, brain-scratching 70s what-the-fuck. It features compelling, Shakespearean-trained actors giving superb performances in the middle of brothels and orgies with hermaphrodites and sex swings. It’s got a giant lawnmower execution device ripped straight out of Fellini’s Satyricon nightmares. There are 17 different variations of Peter O’Toole’s drunkface. It has everything. Even its retail soundtrack, largely driven by pieces taken from Prokofiev and Khachaturian, has a disco remix of the main theme.

Caligula is fucking insane. That it was bankrolled at all is madness enough – that it actually reached cinemas (relatively) intact is a minor miracle. Its depraved lunacy earned it an X-rating on original release, meaning it could only be screened in cinemas specifically made for porn. A neutered R-rated cut running 120 minutes, excising many of the more graphic scenes, was critically savaged – Roger Ebert famously walked out. This tidal wave of critical mauling didn’t stop it recouping its budget and then some (home video notwithstanding), but the film’s reputation was set in stone.

I wonder why.

I wonder why.

I’m here to set that right. While it may not reach the incredible heights of I, Claudius (what could?), Caligula still triumphs as a daring, evocative piece of almost-thwarted audacity. It’s a flagrant middle finger to good taste and decency, revelling in the fecundity and grime of an Ancient Rome where perversion is king, lead by a man to whom no laws or ethics apply. A relic of Gore Vidal’s original script, this satirical bent is largely lost in the hardcore shuffle, the film focusing instead on Caligula’s ascent to power.

“Adapted from an original screenplay” by Vidal (that was presumably molested in transition), the production was met with a sea of troubles. Vidal, for his part, demanded his name be stricken from the production credits. Guccione, dissatisfied with the “unsexy” approach Brass was taking to the material, kicked the director out of the editing room and shot at least an hour of hardcore pornography, clumsily editing it into the rough cut along with re-arranging scenes and inserting alternate takes. It’s a shoddy job, certainly, but it adds to the off-kilter, dreamlike insanity unfolding elsewhere.

The film opens on the future Emperor in a woodland idyll, chasing after Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) in near-Edenic imagery, set to Aram Khachaturian’s ‘Spartacus and Phrygia’ adagio. But this is Adam and Eve as brother and sister – after casually revealing the lovers are siblings (incest is the film’s least surprising aspect), Caligula is whisked away to the Isle of Capri to meet his syphilitic uncle, Emperor Tiberius (O’Toole) and his advisor, Nerva (John Gielgud). Greeted with Tiberius’ “little fishes” and his grotto, full of sexual deviance (including centaurs, trismagias and questionably pubescent youngsters), Caligula is fascinated and disgusted (not unlike the critics).

Capri sets the tone for much of the film – sexual depravity entirely devoid of eroticism; lavish, surrealist sets and colourful costumes devised by Fellini associate Danilo Donati; astonishing, eye-grabbing performances from esteemed performers and, of course, full-frontal, gender-equal nudity. Caligula‘s not for the squeamish, suffice it to say, but it’s worth pressing through the more unseemly sections to catch the performances.

So much booze.

So much booze.

O’Toole, for his all-too-brief 15 minutes or so, is captivating as the mad Tiberius. Whether his obvious inebriation is in-character or not, his gravitas is unimpeachable, commanding the attention of the audience. Covered in syphilis sores and flanked by naked “nymphs and satyrs”, his Tiberius is a lolling, shambling wreck, halfway through the most elongated binge in history, his mangled shouting dripping with venom. Gielgud’s dignified Nerva, world-weary, offers a muted contrast; in the middle is McDowell’s Caligula, wide-eyed and horrified.

After Capri, when Caligula takes Tiberius’ throne, the film is McDowell’s. Despite Guccione’s best efforts – despite all that porn – McDowell gives an incredible performance. The fact he is able to humanise Caligula (one of the most infamously monstrous people in history) is achievement enough, but his ability to carry the entire film on his shoulders – even as it falls apart around him, both on-screen and off – is unearthly. Beyond taking sadistic pleasure in humiliating his lessers and the Senate – culminating in the notorious “fisting scene” – he’s also capable of displaying feverish paranoia and dispensing terrifying death-stares.

McDowell runs the full gamut throughout, and his talent extends to the finest scene in the film. That it is also legitimately moving on an emotional level should bend the mind beyond comprehension, but McDowell is astonishing as he cradles the dead body of Drusilla in a lengthy single-take, the camera following Caligula as he drags her corpse throughout the palace, all while that adagio plays.

The scene ends when McDowell, inconsolable, lets out one of the most piercing, heartbroken screams ever committed to screen. His anguish is raw and unfettered; in a film of such wanton debauchery, the moment hits all the harder. That McDowell never received a leading role of this calibre again is a travesty because this – of all the films! – is one of the finest performances ever given on film. I’m dead serious.

This isn't it, but it still hurts, dammit.

This isn’t it, but it still hurts, dammit.

Helen Mirren (Caesonia, Caligula’s prostitute wife), of course, received better luck. Here, she is coyly seductive, wielding the power to speak with Caligula as an equal. Both actors share electric chemistry; it’s fitting that they’ve both, to differing effect, defended the film (pre-Guccione) even as they distanced themselves from it. Teresa Ann Savoy is also compelling as Caligula’s doomed sister/lover Drusilla, her initial devotion slowly morphing into disgust. There’s also John Steiner’s Longinus, a simpering advisor, who’s reliably oily and serpentine.

While the performances are wonderful and the script is boldly operatic, the Guccione scenes are obvious and unnecessary, leaden with sickly blowjobs and deeply unsexy cunnilingus. In fairness, however, they’re often indistinguishable from Brass’ own twisted, disturbing scenes of sexual content, like Tiberius’ grotto. Guccione merely supplements this material with “erotic” additions that fail, spectacularly, at arousing much more than a yawn.

The weathered grit of Donati’s palace interiors mirror the fetid grime of the Roman alleys that a dazed Caligula wanders through toward the end. He passively observes squalid dalliances in the streets, meets a barbarian and performs a magic trick before returning to the Senate to declare himself a god and make the senators bleat like sheep. “I have existed from the morning of the world,” he declares, “and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” We believe him.

You'd say the same if your wife was Helen Mirren.

You’d say the same if your wife was Helen Mirren.

Caligula is the kind of insane, glorious folly that could only have come from the 70s. It’s a monstrous descent into unchained decadence, both hindered and bolstered by its relentless assault on the senses. It’s utterly unique in form and function, a moment of artistic madness with a pervert behind the wheel. And it’s, obviously, not perfect.

Historical/political context is severely lacking, and there is precious little substance to the intrigue surrounding Tiberius or Caligula. Vidal’s original, satirical angle is absent. The strange lack of exterior shots can lead to set-exhaustion and over-familiarity. Claudius, so wonderfully portrayed in I, Claudius, is relegated to a barely-there halfwit clown, who randomly giggles every now and then. The midpoint buckles beneath the weight of all that porn. The fisting scene is, yeah, probably a bit much.

A lot of people will be bored and more will be disgusted. I can’t say I blame them, but you owe it to yourself to give it a try. If nothing else, you can at least say you’ve seen Malcolm McDowell perform that thumb-dance, and that’s worth all the porn in the world.

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